Two Republicans are vying for the Precinct 4 McLennan County Commissioner seat with different ideas on how to ensure responsible use of taxpayer money.

Ben Perry, who is seeking his third four-year term, will face political newcomer Mel Priest in the March 6 primary. Early voting starts Tuesday and continues through March 2.

Precinct 4 covers parts of West Waco, Woodway, Hewitt, China Spring, Speegleville, McGregor and Crawford.

Priest raised almost $4,800 campaign contributions and spent more than $4,400 between Oct. 2 and Jan. 25, according to her campaign finance reports. Perry raised a little more than $20,000 and spent more than $3,200 between July 1 and Jan. 1, according to his reports.

Perry, 55, of Woodway, said he is proud of his work as a commissioner, including his support for moving the county’s finances in a positive direction, leading to its highest bond rating ever, all while reducing the tax rate in each of the past two years.

Perry was elected to the seat in 2010 after beating Ray Meadows, who served for 24 years, by a 2-to-1 margin in the Republican primary, then winning 76 percent of the general election vote. He said he wants to continue, in part, to help ensure the county’s financial stability.

Part of that includes his membership on the McLennan County Appraisal District board. Perry said he became interested in the board’s work because of complaints he heard from residents, and he was nominated to the board in 2016. The MCAD board hires and fires the chief appraiser and is responsible for policy, procedures and the department budget, while the chief appraiser manages operations.

“Truly, it’s not the chief appraiser, it’s the state comptroller’s office that’s pulling the strings behind the scene,” Perry said.

The Texas Association of Counties plans to ask legislators during the next legislative session to address the state’s declining public education spending, which pushes up local property taxes, Perry said, adding he wants to be part of that effort.

Priest, 53, of Speegleville, an accountant with Darden Building Materials, views Perry’s position on the appraisal district board as a conflict of interest. She said commissioners should separate their duties from entities that receive county funding controlled by commissioners. Perry’s duties on the board, and the several other boards he sits on, take away from his role as commissioner, Priest said.

Priest, who served as the secretary and treasurer for the city of Gholson for almost two years, said she would be a full-time commissioner, and resign from her current job if elected. If residents want a part-time commissioner, she said she would support that, but that means commissioners should take a pay cut.

“I know (Perry’s) saying he is a full-time county commissioner, but it doesn’t look that way when you look at the facts,” she said.

The appraisal district board should consist of “hardworking, everyday people,” not financially secure individuals, she said. County commissioners approved a $640,000 increase to the appraisal district’s budget for this year, she said. With her accounting background, she said she would ensure taxpayer money is spent efficiently and that requests are scrutinized, not blindly approved.

About $400,000 of the $640,000 increase is for legal fees to defend the district from 44 lawsuits from some of the largest corporations in the county, Perry said. If those lawsuits are successful and companies’ property values are reduced, the burden will fall on residents, Perry said.

“If we don’t vigorously defend the lawsuit, it could fall on people who own homes,” Perry said. “The most misunderstood process in the entire county is what goes on at the appraisal district. It bothers me when a political candidate of any kind jumps on that not fully understanding what they are talking about.”

For years the county was solely reactive, Perry said. Now, county commissioners serve on multiple boards and committees to ensure the county has a voice in the growth and direction and policies of the county, he said.

Priest said she is the most qualified because of her background as a consultant, helping companies with restructuring, setting up their accounting, training staff, preventing conflicts of interest and following through with implemented policies. The county needs a detail-oriented commissioner willing to review documents, she said. Commissioners also used to meet weekly, before voting to move to two meetings a month. Priest said she wants the court to go back to weekly meetings.

“Really, you don’t want to work once a week? That right there is a problem,” she said. “We’ve got to have people willing to work and earn their paycheck.”

Perry said he is also running with plans to see a version of the unit road system come to fruition, merging road and bridge operations into a single operation instead of dividing operations by precinct. He also wants to see through the more than $27 million of roadwork underway in the precinct.

“We do operate very efficiently. There’s no doubt in my mind that we do,” Perry said.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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